Search

Epic Theology

Finding God through the lens of an artist

Tag

Fantasy

God and Fantasy, Part III: Pullman and Kay

Today, I want to conclude my exploration of God and Fantasy. This is a subject that I think about a lot, for the reasons set out here in the first post. However, my admiration and respect for two of the greatest fantasy writers of the twentieth century, both for their work and their faith, has allowed me a sense of freedom when it comes to utilizing fantasy to tell good stories.

This afternoon, I want to talk about another couple of fantasy authors who are brilliant in their craft, but have not decided to use their talents to expressly glorify God. Phillip Pullman and Guy Gavriel Kay use their fantasy novels to explore other ideas of religion, yet tell fascinating stories that can be worth reading. I read both while on my journey to find God, and while I may disagree with the spiritual messages espoused by the books, I must admire their willingness to join in the conversation.

DSC_0017

Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series became very popular about seven or eight years ago, culminating in a movie adaptation of the first novel, The Golden Compass (or The Northern Lights, if you don’t live in North America). I read the books just before the movie came out and was deeply challenged by them, for they asked me to question some beliefs I had carried throughout my life. I needed to ask many of these questions regarding God and the Church for me to realize my need for a faith of my own. Though I never settled on Pullman’s world view, it was an important step for me.

Pullman is a staunch atheist. He has made clear his disdain for C. S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia as Christian propaganda. He believes that there is beauty in the world, but it is not to be found in religion. These sentiments are clear in His Dark Materials. The Church is a morally dubious institution that enforces its will on the population and roots out heretics mercilessly. He puts forth the claim that the God that everyone has been worshiping is, in fact, an impostor who usurped the Creator’s throne at the beginning of time. It draws heavily from Platonic and Gnostic concepts throughout, but is not without its merits.

Phillip Pullman writes great characters and great relationships between them. The connection between his protagonists, Lyra and Pan, involves some of the most touching moments in literature that I’ve read. Pullman speaks to the importance of companionship and being willing to open ourselves up to others. The villains are all carefully crafted to be completely understandable, even when you hate them for what they are doing. They are real people who happen to be misguided and zealous. Characters experience heart-rending loss, great personal growth, and the opportunity for self-sacrifice that are hallmarks of great fantasy.

DSC_0020

Guy Gavriel Kay, on the other hand, is not a vocal atheist. I have been unable to actually ascertain his spiritual leanings, so I can only speak about what he offers in his trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry. I read this series shortly before returning to Christianity, and was not challenged in the same was as I was with His Dark Materials. That is not to say that Kay has nothing to say about religion in this book, however.

The central conceit of Kay’s story is that the world of Fionavar is the first of all worlds, and that anything that happens in our world (or any other world) first happened there. It is the central hub of existence, and all of our myths, fables, and religions are drawn from events that happen in their world. This allows Kay to draw upon several mythological and religious sources to populate his world.

And what a world it is. Fans of fantasy will see strong influences from Tolkien (who mentored Kay and the two maintained a close relationship), Norse mythology, the Arthurian legends, Greek epics, and Christianity. My concern is not his use of all of these sources, but the fact that Christianity is thought of as one of many sources of power, equal to all others. It is not so much an issue I have with the book, just with the concept. Yet, as a place to start conversation, this may be a great beginning point.

In the end, The Fionavar Tapestry is a story of redemption. Very dark events (it isn’t a children’s book by any stretch of the imagination) lead to very bleak circumstances for the heroes. Yet a glimmer of hope is given, as one character is allowed the choice between good and evil. Just as we all must choose between the dark and the light, Guy Gavriel Kay gives his readers a personification of this choice to follow. No matter how hopeless everything seems to get, we know that it doesn’t have to end in darkness.

Self-sacrifice is one of the strongest themes of The Fionavar Tapestry, which may be one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much. His use of old fables and myths is fun, especially if you know much about the stories he is referencing. What I first thought to be blatant idea theft turned into a well defined homage to the grand history of epic fantasy. For those interested, Kay’s writing style took me a little while to get used to, but once I was invested, I became very attached to all of his characters, and I stopped caring about his intricate sentence structure.

For those who love fantasy, or those now thinking of exploring this rich genre, I just ask you to keep a conversation open. There is far less danger of reading about magic and monsters if we can talk about the good and the bad of each story. I don’t only read Christian authors, but I’ve learned there are some writers who are so far from my beliefs that I cannot stand to read them anymore. I do not fear their words, but I know I can only take in so much hopelessness and violence before it starts to affect me negatively. I caution you all to check in with yourselves to make sure you are growing through what you are reading.

Thanks for following along with my discussion of Faith and Fantasy. I hope I’ve given you something to think about over the past couple weeks. I know that I’ve been enriched by some of the conversations I’ve had with friends and family about the series. If you still want to steer clear of magic and fantasy altogether, I’m not offended at all. We all have our paths to walk, and God calls us to different journeys. I just hope to share a portion with all of you.

Blessings

God and Fantasy, Part II: Lewis and Tolkien

I’ve had some great discussions with friends and family since writing the first half of my conversation on God and fantasy. I hope that these continue, for both myself and all of the readers out there, and that we are all able to grow with them. This week, I want to talk about four fantasy writers and how their works have interacted with my faith: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien today, Guy Gavriel Kay and Phillip Pullman later this week.

Chronicles

To many Christians (especially of the evangelical sort), Clive Staples Lewis is something of a hero. As the writer of one of the best-loved children’s novel series, apologist to the working class, and theologian with a flair for words, C. S. Lewis captures the heart of people around the world. In the past week, I’ve had a couple conversation about the man, and heard him quoted more than once in a sermon. As the Narnia books are adapted into movies, it seems that Lewis’ fame is spreading further each day.

As one of my favourite authors, this makes me quite happy.

My first interaction with C. S. Lewis’ writing was as a child, when I read the Chronicles of Narnia for the first time. I remember loving the stories of adventure and excitement, of exploration and heroism. I loved the tone of the books, like a grandfather speaking to his grandchildren, always relatable and full of funny commentary. Yet, at that age, I did not understand the Christian underpinnings of the Chronicles.

Lewis has been both applauded and criticized for creating a fantasy that is an analogy for Jesus Christ and His works. Lewis, however, vehemently opposed the idea that the Chronicles of Narnia were analogous at all. He merely began writing of another world, one inhabited by talking animals. In such a world, he believed Jesus would arrive as a lion, and Aslan was created. However, the parallels between many of the Narnia narratives and the biblical stories can be glaring at times. The Magician’s Nephew incorporates many aspects of the Creation as recounted in the Book of Genesis. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe shows an alternate version of the crucifixion and resurrection. The Last Battle showcases an interpretation of what Heaven will be like.

C. S. Lewis did not, however, utilize only Christian imagery in his series. Narnia is populated with gods, spirits, minotaurs, fauns, dwarves, centaurs, giants, witches, and unicorns. Lewis drew from classical mythology and European folklore to create a cast far more varied than often seen in fantasy. He was able to draw symbols and images from around the world to tell the story he wanted to tell. As someone who is also fascinated by mythology, I enjoyed Lewis’ references to classical characters and creatures in creating a fantasy world that is both familiar, yet decidedly his own.

Even without from the specifically Christian themes, the Narnia series teaches both children and adults about bravery in the face of terrible opposition, about loyalty to those who matter most, about redemption from past mistakes, and about being children and growing up. I have since reread the series a few times, and look forward to reading it with my children in the future.

Perhaps no other author has influenced fantasy in the way that J. R. R. Tolkien has. His world, Middle Earth, has become the standard High Fantasy realm for the next generations of writers. His description and use of elves, dwarves, wizards, and goblins have become standard in fantasy books, movies, and games. His orcs, a race he created for the The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, have become so prevalent that few fantasy games do not have some variety of orc as an enemy at some point. Tolkien’s legacy in fantasy writing is definitely without question.

Fewer people know that J. R. R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic and a longtime friend of C. S. Lewis. Tolkien was even instrumental in Lewis’ conversion to Christianity (although not to Catholicism, much to Tolkien’s chagrin). However, Tolkien was not impressed by the Chronicles of Narnia, for he believed that the Christian imagery was far too strong. Tolkien preferred to lay his Christian themes further beneath the surface.

Tolkien

The stories of Middle Earth often sound like they’ve come straight out of the Bible, had they not included dragons, elves, and hobbits. Tolkien was able to capture the feel of the Old Testament and turn it into The Silmarillion, his Creation and early history story for Middle Earth. Even with several powerful otherworldly beings, Tolkien held onto monotheism, with his God referred to as Iluvatar. Throughout the book are tales of brave and steadfast heroes and tragic stories of leaders who fall to their own pride to become villains. Tolkien also drew from (primarily Norse) mythology for the creatures and monsters that inhabit Middle Earth, but his understanding of mythology and it’s place in “Faery Stories” is far more strict that that of Lewis.

The Hobbit was written for children, and teaches kids through the eyes of Bilbo Baggins. Through the story, they learn that the world outside is full of beautiful goodness and terrifying evil. They learn that it takes courage and teamwork to overcome the evils that they will face in the real world. They are able to go on the adventure with Bilbo and the dwarves, yet return to the place they began, a place of safety.

The Lord of the Rings continues the theme of good battling evil, while increasing the stakes with courage, determination, and self sacrifice. The theme of power comes to the forefront as the entire world seeks the One Ring, and its destiny is tied to that of the entire realm. Tolkien shows us that absolute power is not meant for mere mortals, for no created being is capable of wielding it without becoming corrupted by it. We also learn that we must all work together if we want to overcome the evils of this world. Race, age, and social class cannot separate us if we wish to have peace on Earth.

In the end, both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien wrote stories from the point of view of their faith in Jesus Christ. They used magic and fantasy as tools to tell truths that may have been too big to tell without them. There is something very magical about the God of the Bible, and it is that magic that these two authors harnessed when they authored their fantasy series. If He is the source of our inspiration, and we are careful to bathe our writing in prayer, then I see no harm, and much good, that can come from the utilization of magic in fantasy storytelling.

But what do you think? You’ve made it to the end of my longest post yet, and I really want to know what your thoughts on Tolkien and Lewis are. Did they honour God with these stories, or have they drawn you further from your Creator?

Come back later this week, as I finish the series with two other fantasy authors who tackle the issues of religion and faith.

Blessings

God and Fantasy, Part I

This week, I want to start a conversation about two of my favourite things: God and fantasy. I don’t mean the “whatever you want in the whole world” kind of fantasy, but the kind that involves magic and dragons and heroes. I have loved stories like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter since I was a little kid, but I can’t help but notice that there are several Christian groups that boycott such stories. In the spirit of fair conversation, I want to look at the issue over the course of a few posts, and see what we can learn about the connection between our faith and stories of magic.

Fantasy Shelf

As far as I can tell, the main argument that people have against fantasy is the inclusion of magic. The Bible clearly condemns the use of magic in Leviticus 19:26b, “Do not practice divination or sorcery.” The Book of Deuteronomy goes into further detail in chapter 18:9-12:

“When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults with the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you.”

It is clear that the use of magic by God’s people is not part of His great plan.

The argument continues that even if reading about magic is not wrong, stories like Harry Potter can draw people into the realm of the occult as they long to know more of this magic. What may begin as simple curiosity can become an unhealthy interest, and perhaps lead to participation in magical rituals. As a devout Christian who has previously explored other forms of spirituality, I acknowledge the danger of an overly enthusiastic interest in the occult, but I’m not sure if avoiding magical stories altogether is the answer.

On the other hand, fantasy stories can be incredible tools to express universal truths. The fantasy I grew up with (such as the Disney stories, or the Chronicles of Narnia) are tales full of adventure, heroism, and good triumphing over evil. Fantasy allows for over-the-top characters that can be representations of ideas and forces.

We all need a safe place to explore the big ideas of our lives. Fantasy stories allow us to delve into the concepts of sacrifice, teamwork, family, and love without becoming overwhelmed by the reality of these things. The stories take place in a world that doesn’t exist, so we are free to learn about self-sacrificial heroism without having to lose someone close to us in real life. Our children can learn the dangers of evil without having to come face to face with a kidnapper. Just as play teaches children practical skills they will need when they are older, reading (or watching) fantasy can equip us with knowledge and wisdom that can really make a difference later in life.

Fantasy makes these concepts easier to learn by giving a world that is black and white. The villain is obviously evil and worthy of judgement (the black cape or red eyes always give it away). The hero is a shining example for us all, who is given his just reward in the end. The actions of both sides are clearly the ones we would make or avoid. The world may not be full of choices that are so easy, but having a base line from which to discern good and evil certainly helps.

We have not specifically addressed the issue of magic, however. Much of what I have said of fantasy could easily be made true in tales without magic. The problem, however, is that magic is an amazingly resonant analogy for power.

In our age of nuclear missiles and war machines, nothing we face is as mysterious and powerful as magic. The villains of our stories often wield magic far more potent than that of our heroes (if they are magical at all). Yet, magic is not always an evil thing in the world of fantasy. Like military or political power in the real world, magic can often be used for good, such as healing or fighting evil. We learn from fantasy that power CAN be corrupting and must be watched, something Christians should be aware of.

One big difference between the world of fantasy and the world of reality is the existence of God. Most fantasy stories do not have an omnipotent God that has declared magic to be against the rules. Magic is just a part of the world, to be accessed by whoever has the ability to do so. Not so in our world. God has spoken and told us that His children are not to dabble in the realm of magic. As long as we can understand that difference, I think we can keep a healthy distance from magical influence.

Finally, I want to end with a few questions: Is magic real? Has God told his people not to become involved with magic because it is real and dangerous? Or is it because it represents the idolatry of the neighbouring nations? Is magic, like the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, a part of our world that God has put off limits, or is it the result of demonic activity in a fallen world?

As for me, it doesn’t really matter what the answer is to these questions, but I’m open to any of the above answers. I just know that there is to be no seances or witchcraft in my house. And I’m okay with that. But let me know what you think! And come back next week, as I will look over some of my favourite fantasy authors and their relationship with faith.

Blessings

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑